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Sold for one or two euros, the spritz, which at its most basic is a combination of bittersweet liqueur, sparkling wine and seltzer, has been dubbed “the champagne of the poor” – no wonder it has been the king of cocktails in Naples for at least a decade.

Aperitif time – often starring a cool spritz – is the most relaxing, and thus most awaited, moment of the day. And Neapolitans have made an art of this pre-meal ritual. In a city that is known (although sometimes unjustly) throughout Italy as the city of the idle, the aperitif has come to symbolize living well, in the company of friends.

Despite having won over Naples, the spritz is an alcoholic aperitif that many believe has its origins in Veneto, a region of northeastern Italy. As the story goes, the drink was developed at the start of the 19th century, when the Veneto area was part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian soldiers had the habit of diluting the strong Venetian wine with a splash (“spritzen” in German) of seltzer, a very carbonated water. And so the famous spritz was born (and is still served this way in some areas of Italy).

The spritz, and the associated practice of aperitivo, a pre-dinner cocktail served with snacks, further evolved in northern Italy with the invention of various bitter liqueurs like Campari and Aperol in the 19th and 20th centuries. The wine was replaced by Prosecco and bitter liqueur was added to the mix, resulting in something more along the lines of a wine-cocktail.

Meanwhile, down south, Neapolitans have long made aperitifs with light sparkling wine that has been diluted with gassosa, a sweet and sparkling soft drink, and garnished with slices of percoca, or peach. At most bars, a sea of delicious snacks accompanies this classic aperitif: taralli, frittata di maccheroni (a fried pasta omelet), and fried or baked small pizzas. (Rarely does the spritz come with something sweet, although we have seen some inviting sfogliatelle at a few bars.)

In the early 2000s, many Neapolitan bars switched over from serving the traditional wine aperitif to the spritz, allowing for a fusion between northern drinks and southern snacks. The success of the spritz was immediate – the city turned an Aperol-tinged shade of orange.

But what makes aperitivo special in Naples is that it’s all about sharing pleasures with friends and meeting new people while sipping on something delightful. Theoretically the word aperitif derives from the Latin aperitivus (“that which opens”). An aperitif, then, must be capable of stimulating the appetite, i.e. “opening” the feeling of hunger, and should be served before lunch or dinner.

But even though the name implies that it’s a pre-meal drink, you can find Neapolitans enjoying a spritz and some snacks at all hours of the day, on any day of the week. For many, it has even become a low-cost alternative to a meal (as opposed to merely whetting the appetite).

One of the most celebrated spritz bars in the city is Peppe Spritz, a spot on Piazza Bellini that’s particularly popular with Neapolitan students. Brothers Peppe and Giulio own the bar and can often be found on the premises with friendly smiles and a few kind words. Peppe’s real name is Giuseppe Pianese, but everyone knows him by his nickname, Peppe Spritz; in fact, he’s an icon in Naples, having been named in dozens of videos about the city and even in a song by the famous Neapolitan singer Daniele Sepe.

“Peppe is the soul of the historic city center,” says 26-year-old Eduardo Gargiulo, a local tour guide. He’s at the bar for his friend Federica’s graduation party. “Peppe’s spritz is always the first drink of the evening for young people in the neighborhood,” he continues, “because it loosens the tongue and allows for chance meetings.” In other words, Peppe’s spritz is a 21st-century liquid cupid.

Peppe and Giulio are continuing the work of their father, Amedeo Pianese, a bartender with a passion for art. In 1989, he opened a bar, at the time called Caffè dell’Epoca, between Port’Alba and Piazza Bellini, and close to both the music conservatory and the academy of fine arts. He loved talking with teachers at the academy and even tried his hand at some small works of art. “A professor told him frankly: Amedeo let it go,” Peppe recounts. “Better that you work as a bartender and not an artist.”

The success of the spritz was immediate – the city turned an Aperol-tinged shaded of orange.

Peppe sells his spritz, prepared with Aperol, Prosecco, ice and soda, and garnished with a slice of orange, for €2. “My spritz,” says Peppe, “is a real revolution because it’s the best quality at a bargain price. And it goes perfectly with the typical Neapolitan tarallo and frittata di maccheroni.”

A similar type of clientele, mainly young students, frequents Cammarota Spritz, one of the oldest and most popular spritz bars in Naples. Located in the Spanish Quarter, next to the iconic yet overcrowded restaurant Nennella, it also draws in many tourists. The place evolved from a simple wine shop where customers could have a pre-dinner or pre-theater glass of wine into a full-blown spritz spot – at only €1 per glass, it’s the perfect spritz for all budgets. “My spritz was born by chance thanks to passing tourists,” says Armando, the owner. “They asked if I could combine one of my sparkling wines with Aperol.”

Armando is famous for his drawn-out cry of “Preeegooo.” He’s a friendly presence at the cash desk, glad-handing customers. Another important figure is uncle Lello, the man in charge of the spasso (the peanuts) and the taralli. We also recommend the panino napoletano, a warm sandwich that, like the spritz, is a bargain at €1.

For something a bit more upscale, we visit the Apperò outposts in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Vomero and Chiaia. The bar offers a wider variety of spritzes beyond that made with Aperol, including a Campari spritz and AperTass, which replaces the bitter liqueur with Tessoni’s cedrata soda, a non-alcoholic drink made from Diamante citrons.

Each spritz is available in three sizes, priced respective at €2, €4 and €6. “Lo spasso è gratis” (“The peanuts are free”) reads a sign; the peanuts are in fact stored in large jute sacks, which customers can access freely. These two spots are most packed on the weekends with locals imbibing either a morning or evening aperitif.

Forcella Spritz, a spritz bar recently opened in the historic district of Forcella, right next to the famous murals of San Gennaro by Italian street artist Jorit Agoch, is probably one of the best spots for a limoncello spritz, a new creation that has taken the city by storm. Although the famous Campania liqueur, made from lemons grown on the Amalfi coast, is a digestif rather than an aperitif, that hasn’t stopped Neapolitans from mixing two parts limoncello with two parts soda and three parts Prosecco to make a locally inspired spritz.

While many Neapolitans make their own limoncello at home, there’s something special about enjoying this liqueur in spritz form at a nice table in the historic center, surrounded by revelers – it’s a drink that calls for company.

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Gianni Cipriano and Sara Smarrazzo

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